In 2017, I had the opportunity to travel to Paris for the opening of Jamaica, Jamaica, a major exhibition on Jamaican music curated by the French music journalist Sebastien Carayol for the Philharmonie de Paris/Cité de la Musique. I did so in my capacity as the then Executive Director of the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ). I am always rather skeptical of how Jamaican music culture is represented in the global sphere, as this is often couched in rampant exoticism and reductive stereotypes, and I came to the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition opening in Paris with those concerns. While not entirely devoid of such issues, which are after all an integral part of the dynamic that has surrounded the subject since the 1970s, I was blown away by the exhibition, and the excellent and very engaging way in which it had been curated and designed, with an expansive, immersive vision which perfectly captured the conquering spirit of Jamaican popular music. Those who know me well, know that I am not easily impressed but I was delighted to be proven wrong on that occasion.
Discussions about having the exhibition at the NGJ had started from the moment the exhibition was first planned, with the understanding that not all loans to the original exhibition would be available for travel but that this would not be a major problem, as there are enough memorabilia, other artifacts and images available in Jamaica to make suitable substitutions. I am delighted that this has now come to fruition, at the NGJ and in a collaboration between the NGJ and the Jamaica Music Museum. It was already known in 2017 that the exhibition would travel to Brazil, where it was shown in 2018 (with, if the online photos are anything to go by, an equally spectacular installation, to which sections on Brazilian reggae were added), and the consensus was that it could come to Jamaica as its concluding edition, which would also coincide with the return to the island of those artworks and artifacts that had been borrowed from Jamaican sources, including the NGJ collection. It made perfect sense.
Jamaica, Jamaica is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition on Jamaican music to date. That Jamaica has itself failed to initiate and produce an exhibition at this level despite having a Jamaica Music Museum for more than ten years now, is nothing to be proud of, as it suggests a near-inexplicable lack of initiative, in contrast with the drive and ambition that have fueled the Jamaican music industry itself. And that the Jamaica Music Museum is still in small, temporary premises at the Institute of Jamaica and does not yet have the large, suitably outfitted museum building or the collections needed to mount comprehensive exhibitions is downright embarrassing, especially after countless political announcements. The now-routine excuses about the lack of resources no longer have much credibility, as resources have been found for many other, less worthwhile ventures. It is simply a matter of priorities, and of vision, or rather, of the sad lack thereof. Jamaica, Jamaica, by implication, shows up these deficiencies and, having originated in France, also raises question of cultural ownership.
So it ought to have been clear from day one that showing Jamaica, Jamaica in Jamaica would be a fraught affair, which would generate all sorts of discussions, and that the stakes would be high in terms of how the Jamaican edition would be presented. In addition, it was obvious that it would be challenging to translate the complex and ambitious exhibition design into the more regimented spaces of the NGJ’s exhibition galleries but there was no doubt in my mind that it could be done, as the NGJ team has designed and installed complex exhibitions many times before, on limited budgets and often in record time.
The NGJ had no new exhibition after the closure of last year’s Summer Exhibition, which left the museum exhibition-less for the normally busy Holiday season. This was, in and of itself, unusual and disappointing but I assumed that this meant that the NGJ was pulling out all the stops to present Jamaica, Jamaica in grand style, and to equal or surpass the manner in which it was shown in Paris. It would have been helpful if there had been an announcement from the NGJ as to why Jamaica, Jamaica was not shown in November, as had been originally announced, and I only heard of the new February 2 opening date by happenstance, because of communications with an overseas contact. The NGJ was, once again, publicly silent on these matters and did not start promoting the Jamaica, Jamaica exhibition until about two and a half weeks ago, which is very late for a major exhibition. Many people I had mentioned the exhibition to recently did not know about it at all, which illustrates the detrimental effect of such late, low-key promotions. Unfortunately, these long silences and last minute announcements have now become the norm with the NGJ’s public communications and it is hard to fathom why it has come to that after all the efforts to increase the public visibility of the NGJ.
My eyes were admittedly trained by the extraordinary Paris edition of Jamaica, Jamaica, and I am aware that those who saw the exhibition for the first time yesterday may have reacted differently to it, with the keen excitement that inevitably comes with seeing the first general survey of Jamaica’s music history ever to be shown in Jamaica. The exhibition certainly has its moments, if only because of the inclusion of rarely seen iconic objects such as Peter Tosh’s machine-gun guitar. And there are some excellent music-themed wall-paintings that were specially commissioned for the exhibition from the downtown mural artists Bones, Gideon and Ras Lava. But that does, as such, not make for the caliber of exhibition I had anticipated, and critical unpacking is necessary. I will not comment on the music scholarship that is on display in the exhibition, as this is outside of my area of professional competence, but I will instead comment on how it is curated and designed.
What I saw yesterday afternoon was, at least from my perspective, an exhibition which was curated downwards, rather than re-imagined and re-curated with the sort of inspired vision and panache I would have expected from the subject’s country of origin. There is a polite and tediously conventional “picture on wall, picture on wall, object on a stand, label to the side” approach to most of the installation which takes it down to a pedestrian level that does not do justice to the nature and significance of the exhibition subject.
My heart wept when I saw how the iconic long-sleeved “star” shirt worn by Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come was mounted. It does not get more unimaginative and pedestrian than that – just compare how it is shown in Jamaica with the manner in which it was shown in Paris, where something as simple and achievable as the effective use of accent lighting and background colour made all the difference. The same held true for Peter Tosh’s machine gun guitar, an object that has tremendous charisma and resonance, but which was practically stripped of these evocative qualities because of the unimaginative manner in which it was mounted. Exactly how such objects are mounted, contextualized, and lit is of paramount importance in exhibitions of this nature – that is Exhibition Design 101.